TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The Christie administration withheld millions of dollars in Superstorm Sandy recovery grants from a New Jersey city because its mayor refused to sign off on a politically connected commercial development, the mayor said Saturday.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged that Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor and a top community development official told her recovery funds would flow to her city if she allowed the project to move forward.
Zimmer said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno pulled her aside at an event in May and told her Sandy aid was tied to the project — a proposal from the New York City-based Rockefeller Group aimed at prime real estate in the densely populated city across the river from New York City.
The Democratic mayor said the Republican administration officials wanted Rockefeller's plans for the property approved, while Zimmer said she preferred to go through normal channels and hear from all stakeholders, including the public and owners of adjacent property. Rockefeller Group owns about three blocks of the 19-block area.
"I was directly told the by the lieutenant governor — she made it very clear — that the Rockefeller project needed to move forward or they wouldn't be able to help me," Zimmer told The Associated Press.
"There is no way I could ethically do what the governor, through the lieutenant governor, is asking me to do," she said.
Christie's office denied Zimmer's claims, calling her statements politically motivated. Spokesman Colin Reed said the administration has been helping Hoboken secure assistance since Sandy struck." Christie himself was raising money Saturday for fellow Republicans in Florida. The fundraisers were closed to reporters.
Hoboken is hiring a planner to rehabilitate the area, and Rockefeller will have an opportunity to offer input along with others who have an interest in development of the property, said Juan Melli, a spokesman for Zimmer.
A state website that tracks the distribution of Sandy aid shows that Hoboken received a $200,000 post-storm planning grant in October out of a $1.8 billion pot of money controlled by the state. Hoboken also received a $142,000 state energy resilience grant.
Besides state money, Hoboken has received $70 million in recovery funds distributed by the federal government, according to the Christie administration. Zimmer said she has applied for $100 million to implement a comprehensive plan to help insulate her city from future floods.
Christie already is embroiled in another scandal involving traffic jams apparently manufactured to settle a political score. At a recent news conference to discuss the lane closures on the approach to the George Washington Bridge, Christie brushed aside questions about his aggressive governing style. "I am who I am," said Christie, "I am not a bully."
But Zimmer said Guadagno and Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, a member of Christie's cabinet, both delivered messages about Sandy aid in no uncertain terms.
Zimmer, who first spoke with MSNBC on Saturday, told the cable network that at another event in May, Constable said "the money would start flowing to you" if she backed the project.
The Rockefeller Group did not immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press. In a statement to MSNBC, a spokesman said it had no knowledge of any information related to Zimmer's claims.
Zimmer said she is willing to take a lie detector test or testify under oath about the conversations.
Christie's office called Zimmer's claims a political move.
"Gov. Christie and his entire administration have been helping Hoboken get the help they need after Sandy," Reed said. "It's very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television."
The Sandy aid matter is the second time in recent weeks Christie's administration has been accused of exacting retribution for political reasons.
Christie's chief of staff, chief counsel, chief political strategist and two-time campaign manager have all been subpoenaed for documents related to the September closing of approach lanes near the George Washington Bridge, which led to traffic chaos in the town of Fort Lee across the river from New York City.
The agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is chaired by David Samson, whose law firm, Wolff & Samson, represented the developer in the Hoboken matter, according to Zimmer. A phone message left at the firm's office was not returned Saturday.
Christie's former community affairs commissioner, Lori Grifa, was a lobbyist promoting the Rockefeller Group's plans for the Hoboken project, according to MSNBC. The network quoted emails from Grifa that appear to confirm her work on behalf of the developer.
Twenty new subpoenas issued in the bridge closure matter on Friday reach deep into the Christie administration, the port authority, and his re-election campaign, but spare the governor himself.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is reviewing the lane closings and a legislative panel is investigating who authorized the apparent plot and why.
Zimmer said she is telling her story in hopes that Hoboken gets much-needed assistance in the second wave of relief funding yet to be approved by the federal government for distribution by the state. That money, total of $1.4 billion to be distributed through the state Community Development Block Grant program, is awaiting federal approval. The focus will be on improving infrastructure, Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said.
Interviewed by the Associated Press last month, Zimmer voiced concerns about the lack of storm aid to her town, but expressed hope that the administration would come through in the next round. She did not mention the real estate development in the interview with the AP.
Associated Press reporter Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton contributed to this report.